The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 7, 2018

New parents aren’t the only people who need paid family leave

The buzz around paid family and medical leave policy often leaves out the needs of caregivers who aren’t new parents. But leave for people caring for family members who are disabled or have a serious health condition is important now and will become more important as our elderly population grows.

The experiences of states with paid family and medical leave policies suggest these programs may not be reaching family caregivers as effectively as they are reaching new parents.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 work weeks of unpaid leave a year to eligible workers for the birth or placement of a new child or to provide care for themselves or a family member with a serious health condition.

In the years since FMLA passed, several states have established paid family and medical leave programs. Both FMLA and these state paid leave programs provide leave not only for new parents, but for self-care and caring for a family member with a qualifying medical condition.

There is no national paid family leave policy, but growing bipartisan interest is reflected in proposed legislation, such as the FAMILY Act and the inclusion of parental leave in the Trump administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018.

Although there is broad public support for paid family leave, much of the discussion has focused on maternity and paternity leave for new parents. The changing demographics of the United States and evidence from paid leave programs suggests there is a large and growing need among family caregivers as well. In policy debates about paid family leave, it is important to remember that new parents aren’t the only people who need it.

The prevalence of family caregivers is high—and growing

Millions of Americans provide unpaid care for family members with serious illnesses or disabilities. In 2015, more than 34 million caregivers provided care for adults ages 50 and older, 5.6 million provided care for adults ages 18 to 49, and 10.2 million provided care for children younger than 18 with special needs.

These responsibilities can reduce caregivers’ work productivity, require caregivers to make workplace accommodations, and interfere with caregivers’ ability to work at all. Data show that 60 percent of family caregivers have a job, and between 4 and 12 percent (depending on level of care provided) have dropped out of the labor force because of limited support for providing this care while working.

The US population is aging and experiencing unprecedented longevity. By 2040, the population ages 50 and older is projected to increase by nearly 28 million people, with the population ages 65 and older nearly doubling in size. As a result, family caregiving demands will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, fertility rates are declining, suggesting that while the need for paid leave among new parents will continue to be high, the relative need among family caregivers may become even higher. And as Americans have started to marry at later ages and delay childbearing, many are finding themselves simultaneously caring for older family members and for children. Nearly half of adults ages 40 to 59 have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child.

Paid family leave programs may not be reaching family caregivers

The prevalence of workers with family caregiving needs is high, but data on public programs show considerable unmet need for paid leave among this group.

A 2012 FMLA study commissioned by the US Department of Labor found that most unpaid FMLA leaves were for workers’ own illnesses, but among remaining leaves, roughly equal numbers were related to a new child and illness of a qualifying relative. In contrast, evidence from state paid family leave programs shows that paid leave claims have been largely for parental leave rather than family caregiving.

The large difference between national data on use of unpaid FMLA leave and state data on use of paid leave for family caregiving suggests there is unmet need for paid leave among family caregivers.

In California, the first state to create a paid family leave program, the number of “bonding claims” for a new child have dramatically exceeded the number of “care claims” for a qualifying family member every year since data collection began. In state fiscal year 2016–17, there were 227,270 bonding claims, compared with 33,033 care claims. Among the care claims, nearly 80 percent were to care for a relative other than a child.

Research on paid leave programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island has shown that public awareness of state paid leave programs is low, especially among disadvantaged workers, and fewer people are aware that benefits can be used to care for a sick family member than for bonding with a new child. Family caregivers also have different needs than new parents. Their caregiving demands are often less predictable, longer term, and more intermittent.

As paid family leave policies are developed and implemented at the state or federal levels, policymakers can learn from this evidence to ensure programs reach all caregivers.

Joe Briseno at home with his son, Jay Briseno, on June 11, 2015 in Manassas, Virginia. Specialist 4th Class Jay Briseno was shot in the back of his head in 2003 in a marketplace in Baghdad, Iraq, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and on full life support. Looking after Jay has become a full-time job for parents Joe and Eva who gave up their jobs to become his primary caregivers. Photo by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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